Backpackers on Australian working-holiday visas are being grossly underpaid, or in some cases paid nothing at all, as authorities fear the program is becoming a “black market” for exploited labour.
An investigation into the federal government’s popular 417 ‘backpacker’ visa program has scrutinised the employment of more than 4000 visa workers in rural areas, and uncovered alarmingly high levels of abuse.
One in every three foreign workers on a 417 visa was not receiving legal minimum pay, the investigation found, and many had been subjected to sexual harassment and grave health and safety violations.
The findings, released on Saturday by the federal workplace watchdog, provide the most comprehensive overview yet of the misuse of Australia’s scandal-plagued working visa schemes.
A slew of migrant worker underpayment cases have come to light in recent years spanning sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, manufacturing, retail and convenience store chain 7-Eleven, where many employees held temporary visas.The Fair Work Ombudsman launched the national inquiry into the 417 working-holiday visa scheme in 2016 in response to “escalating complaints” from visa holders.
The agency said foreign workers in the program were particularly vulnerable to exploitation if they were seeking to extend their stay on the condition they undertake 88 days of paid work in regional areas, mainly in agriculture, forestry or fishing.
“The 417 visa is regarded by both visa holders and employers as a ‘ticket’ to work in Australia,” the inquiry found.
“The desire for a second-year visa extension can drive vulnerable workers to agree to work for below minimum entitlements and in some circumstances, enter into potentially unsafe situations.”
Among the watchdog’s most troubling findings include 66 per cent of workers surveyed felt employers were taking advantage of them and undercutting legal wages; while more than 35 per cent confirmed they were being paid less than the minimum wage.
Nearly half said working backpackers were unlikely to complain about their employment conditions for fear their employer would not sign off on the regional work component needed to extend their stay in Australia.
About 14 per cent revealed they had to “pay in advance” to secure a regional job, and 6 per cent had to pay an employer to sign off on their work requirement.
Nearly 40 per cent described their regional work experiences as “excellent or very good”, while 35 per cent said it was “fair or poor”.
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James on Saturday raised concerns that unscrupulous employers were targeting working-holiday visa holders via social media channels, and “establishing a business model” based on these workers.
“The backpacker labour force is vital to some industries associated with food production in regional areas,” Ms James said.
“But we are at risk of it being a black market, exploited labour force if the settings remain the same.”
The report recommends changes to visa rules and laws, better use of existing laws and an enhanced and more joined-up effort across government to ensure 417 visa holders are better protected and more aware of their work rights.
Source : SMH